Sixty years ago this week, Europe’s two leading colonial powers scored a stupendous own goal. After Israeli troops entered the Sinai area in late October 1956 and began advancing towards the Suez Canal shortly after Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalised the Anglo-French outfit that operated the commercially lucrative waterway connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, Britain and France issued an ultimatum directing both Israeli and Egyptian troops to withdraw from the canal zone.
Despite initial military successes, the Israelis were still at quite a distance from the canal, so the ultimatum was effectively intended for the Egyptians. It was couched in terms that Nasser could not conceivably have accepted, so British and French troops began landing in the vicinity of the canal zone and overran Port Said, preceded by air raids.
It became clear not long afterwards that in fact Britain, France and Israel had conspired to instigate the hostilities. A key meeting between the three heads of government — Anthony Eden, Guy Mollet and David Ben-Gurion (the Israeli side included military chief of staff Moshe Dayan and the director-general of the defence ministry, Shimon Peres) — took place at Sèvres in France, and the military misadventure they concocted has gone down in history as the Suez Crisis, but it is also known more accurately as the tripartite aggression.
It’s not just Moscow that was livid at this turn of events (notwithstanding its own invasion of Hungary) but also Washington. There was little love lost between the US and Egyptian governments at the time; earlier that year the Americans had suddenly withdrawn their offer to assist with the construction of the Aswan Dam, and Nasser had turned to the Soviet bloc for both economic cooperation and military procurement.
The Eisenhower administration would have loved to see the back of Nasser and his incipient Arab nationalism, which was beginning to gain mass appeal across the Middle East. It nonetheless recognised that naked Western military aggression was not a feasible or particularly sensible way of achieving regime change. Eden, meanwhile, had effectively sanctioned Nasser’s assassination.
US secretary of state John Foster Dulles was no fan of Nasser but he resented Eden with almost equal vehemence. When the US and the USSR, in separate resolutions at the United Nations Security Council, sought to condemn the travesty and halt the war in Egypt, they were vetoed by Britain and France. In the General Assembly, however, the American resolution was opposed only by Australia and New Zealand, apart from the three aggressors.It wasn’t just a fiasco at the international level, though. There was vast opposition to the war within Britain, spearheaded by the Labour Party, notably shadow foreign secretary Aneurin Bevan, and the Sunday newspaper The Observer apologised to its readers for having suggested a few weeks earlier that the Eden administration “would not make a military attack in defiance of its solemn international obligations”, adding: “We had not realised that our government was capable of such folly and such crookedness.”
Sadly, The Observer ignored its own no-nonsense stance almost five decades later, when it lamely backed Tony Blair’s disgraceful role in the 2003 Iraq war, this time — crucially — in collusion with the US, which turned out, predictably, to be a much bigger disaster than Suez, even though regime change did indeed go ahead. It wasn’t just Blair, though, but also the George W. Bush administration that ignored the lessons of 1956.
Back in the day, one consequence was patently obvious: Britain and France could no longer pretend to be world powers. They had been superseded by the superpowers, and on this particular occasion, the US and the USSR were roughly on the same page, albeit for different reasons.
Nasser’s credibility and popular appeal were enhanced as a result of the Suez Crisis. Neither Eden nor Mollet survived in power for more than a few months. Most Arab states, including those closely aligned with Britain or France, had expressed solidarity with the Egyptian leader. There were, of course, exceptions, including Saudi Arabia and Iraq, whose prime minister Nuri al-Said, was killed while trying to flee the country dressed as a woman after the coup that overthrew the monarchy two years later.